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The Plantrician Project: Planting the Seeds of Change

Some might argue that floating through life in a bubble of ignorant bliss might be a happier way to navigate an increasingly complicated world. For example, who wouldn’t love to turn off the noise and spectacle that is American politics right now?

But when you don’t know what you don’t know, the ostrich method probably is not the healthiest or most intelligent approach—especially where human nutrition and wellbeing are concerned. The sickness of this nation in terms of chronic disease and associated health declines caused by obesity is bearing down on us hard and at dear cost literally in dollars, lives and planet health.

Experts will tell you there is an elegant solution to these onerous challenges: Eat plants—lots of them. You can weigh the benefits yourself against the drawbacks of perpetuating our culturally ingrained Standard American Diet, which includes a lot of animal protein and processed food. At some point we must posit the following: Is the SAD our birthright (food police/nanny state be damned) or our death knell? The negative implications, both personal and planetary, of our eating habits are mounting and can scarcely be ignored anymore.

For the fourth year, the International Plant-Based Nutrition Healthcare Conference, which has grown significantly each year since its inception, drew a sell-out crowd of more than 750 physicians, dietary professionals and allied health pros from 20 countries. The conference (September 21–24 in Anaheim, California) provided a forum for aspiring “plantricians”—clinicians empowered with knowledge about the benefits of whole food, plant-based nutrition—to gather and discuss what scientific evidence has proven, and to lay out how much we have yet to learn about the power of plants in the diet.

Attendees were treated to a true Who’s Who? of plant-based nutrition researchers and founders of lifestyle medicine: Caldwell Esselstyn, Jr., MD; Dean Ornish, MD; T. Colin Campbell, PhD, and Liana Lianov, MD, MPH, headlined a program that had so much depth and breadth that the agenda ran from 8 am to 9 pm (with three healthy plant-based meal breaks) daily. If your head was not full by evening, your belly certainly was.

Key takeaways were vast, but here are some of the main bullets and highlights from an all-star list of leaders who spoke.

  • Reductionism and Food, the flawed practice of distilling our discussions of food to nutrients, was a theme repeated by many who took the stage, including host and conference co-chair Scott Stoll, MD. He urged colleagues to avoid the confusion of referring to food as fats, antioxidants, carbohydrates and the like, and to instead reignite the conversation by talking about whole food again. “A reductionist approach to health doesn’t work,” said Ornish, founder and president of the Preventive Medicine Research Institute. “It’s not all fat. It’s not all sugar. It’s not even all diet.”
  • Food as Genetic Balm was described by Stoll and Ornish at length with Ornish saying that while genes may be our predisposition, they are not our fate. “Food interacts with our bodies—all the way down to DNA level—in a matter of hours after eating. Each bite has a positive [or negative] effect,” Stoll said. Ornish added that our bodies are remarkably resilient, if we’d give them a chance to heal: “The only way to truly detoxify our bodies on a regular basis is with the food we eat,” he said.
  • Lifestyle Matters. Find a way to weave fun, freedom, pleasure and love into your life. “Fear is not a sustainable motivator” when it comes to making lasting lifestyle changes, Ornish observed.
  • Heart Disease is Avoidable Through Diet. Among other speakers, Essselstyn, Campbell and Robert Ostfeld, MD, MSc, founder and director of the Cardiac Wellness Program at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, lamented that the SAD and overall unhealthy lifestyle practices in the U.S. are responsible for a disease costing us billions each year that doesn’t exist in much of the rest of the world. “The scope of the problem is obscene,” Ostfeld said. “One to two people in the US experience myocardial infarction every minute of every day.”
  • The Scientific Evidence for a Diet of Plants is Strong. An avalanche of top-tier, peer-reviewed evidence and case studies was presented that showed dramatic improvements through plant-based diet interventions in patients’ vascular blockages, blood work, weight loss and overall health markers. Short of how triaging a gunshot wound can save a life, said Ostfeld, he’s not seen anything “come close to the miraculous outcome of a whole foods plant-based diet.” Michael Greger, MD, author of New York Times Bestseller How Not to Die and founder of www.NutritionFacts.org, a free resource on which he presents clear and unbiased analyses of nutrition research updates, laid out an astonishing array of myth-busting studies with true “edutainment” flair. (Subscribe to his site for free and astute daily updates and videos on nutrition science that can help you answer client questions with facts.)
  • The Revolution of the Microbiome is Upon Us. George Washington University gastroenterologist Robynne K. Chutkan, MD, laid out a fascinating case for why our microbiota may be more important than our genes. Calling microbes the “worker bees of digestion,” she described humans as merely the “animate hive” in which all the important work occurs. She explained how diet rapidly and reproducibly alters the human gut biome and illustrated how the vegan microbiome follows a continuum that is distinct from that of omnivores: it has fewer pathogens, more protective species and reduced levels of inflammation. Be very careful of using antibiotics unnecessarily, she warned: “Just 5 days of a broad-spectrum antibiotic takes away one-third of your microbiota. It can take years for those to come back.”
  • Think Twice About Paleo Diets. Brenda Davis, RD, coauthor of nine award-winning vegan and vegetarian best-selling classics, was blunt: “No diet has ever scared me as much as the Paleo Diet—not even Atkins,” she said. Her concerns not only pivot on the vast meat consumption inherent in the plan, but also because the idea has been embraced by mainstream health practitioners, which gives it a halo effect with consumers. While conceding that there are some positive parallels in Paleo to a whole foods plant-based diet, the obvious departures (overemphasis on meat, no grains, no legumes) are disturbing and are not backed by evidence.
  • Learning to Cook is a Powerful Health Intervention. Chef Chad Sarno, vice president of culinary wellness for Rouxbe Online Culinary School, gave a 90-minute live cooking demo in which he multitasked through at least a dozen delicious-looking healthy plant-based recipes. “The greatest missing piece in the wellness conversation is culinary education,” he said. He extolled the virtues of the professional chef’s practice of mise en place,” a French term that literally translated means “to put in place,” as a means to having all ingredients and equipment out and ready to go when you begin to cook. “An organized cook is a successful cook,” he said.
  • The Planet is Suffering. We are facing unsustainable scenarios of overpopulation, overconsumption of “stuff,” and fossil fuel dependence, said J. Morris Hicks, author of Healthy Eating, Healthy World. “The good news is changing our food choices can do more [to help] our ecosystem than changing these top three problems put together.” Jeff Moyer, organic farmer and executive director of the Rodale Institute, spoke earnestly of being much better stewards of our precious farmland. “We are not really eating plants when we eat a plant-based diet, we are eating soil. What we do to our soil, we do to ourselves,” he said. “Half the topsoil on the planet has been lost in the last 150 years. That should scare you. If we don’t have soil, we don’t eat.”
  • Behavior Change is Critical. Liana Lianov, MD, MPH, the immediate past president of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine, spoke of models and strategies that nudge people toward lasting behavior change. She concedes that plant-based diets can be very challenging for clients after a lifetime of eating the SAD and she emphasized that all professionals working with clients trying to improve need to put their best, most compassionate selves forward in every single interaction. “What is in the black box? What is the secret sauce that improves behaviors? EMPATHY!” she said, presenting some compelling studies to support. “You can assist the process by offering a stage-matched intervention; meeting them where they are and empowering them to make the change happen.”
  • Resources.The Plantrician Project Co-founders Scott Stoll, MD, Susan Benigas and Tom Dunham are serious about their mission to produce educational events, tools and resources for clinicians and those they serve, with the aim of advancing the food as medicine movement. The following resources would be an asset to any fitness professional who talks about food and behavior change with clients.

Check out www.culinary-rx.com, an online education program that can help your clients transition to a plant-based dietary lifestlye; www.plantricianproject.org, to learn more about how you can take part as an educator; www.rouxbe.com, an online culinary school that trains individuals to be better cooks and provides extensive knowledge of plant-based food preparation. To align with a physician in your area who believes in plant-based Rx for patients, check out www.PlantBasedDocs.com; and finally, for a curated library of the organization’s best content about a whole foods plant-based diet, go to www.resources.plantricianproject.org/.
For information on the 2017 International Plant-Based Nutrition Healthcare Conference, go to www.pbnhc.com.

Sandy Todd Webster

For 22 years, Sandy Todd Webster was the chief architect of IDEA's content program - including the award-winning IDEA FITNESS JOURNAL and IDEA FOOD & NUTRITION TIPS - the industry's leading resources for fitness, wellness and nutrition professionals worldwide. She created, launched and nurtured these brands and many others during her productive and purposeful IDEA tenure. Sandy is a Rouxbe-certified professional plant-based cook and a Precision Nutrition Level 1 Coach who is pursuing a Master's degree in Sustainable Food Systems through The Culinary Institute of America (expected August 2024). She plans to combine these passions with her content expertise to continue inspiring others to make the world a more just, healthy and regenerative place.

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